Navigant Research Blog

Rethinking Water Use in Buildings

— September 8, 2014

Bad news about the water supply keeps rolling in.  In July, a study on the groundwater in the Colorado Basin found that 53 million acre-feet of water (65 billion cubic meters) had been depleted between December 2004 and November 2013.  The historic drought in the western United States is so severe that it is causing mountains to rise.  And ominous signs of water scarcity are not limited to the United States.  Farmers in Vietnam are converting rice paddies to shrimp farms as the dry season gets dryer and the rising South China Sea turns coastal freshwater ponds salty.  Water scarcity threatens much of the world economy, from the food industry to the mining industry to the petrochemical industry.

Though climate change accounts for a part of the unfolding water crisis, water management practices are driving the problem.  Water has long been treated as a free and inexhaustible raw material.  As a result, it’s used inefficiently.  While great progress has been made in increasing awareness of energy efficiency, water continues to be taken for granted.  Without major changes, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025.

Water Scarcity and the Built Environment

Buildings account for about 12% of water use in the United States.  Already, water conservation efforts and greater efficiencies in using water have led to a reduction in water withdrawals.  But, for further gains, fundamentally rethinking the built environment is necessary.  For the most part, everything that needs water in a building is provided with potable freshwater.  Similarly, all wastewater is treated the same.  But not everything needs potable water.  And rather than being disposed of, some wastewater can be recycled.  Water from a sink can be reused to flush a toilet.  Water from a bathtub can be used for landscape irrigation.  When water is cheap and abundant, it makes sense to have a single system for all water needs and a single system to dispose of all “used” water.  But meeting all water needs with potable water may soon no longer be an option.

Similar recycling efforts can be achieved with stormwater runoff.  Many municipalities treat stormwater runoff and domestic sewage the same, using a combined sewer system to transport them in a single pipe to a sewage treatment plant (though heavy rainfall or snowmelt can create undesirable outcomes for combined sewers).  Rather than building infrastructure to capture and transport stormwater through gutters and sewers, capturing it to recharge groundwater or for direct nonpotable consumption can directly improve the water situation.  Indeed, the Pacific Institute estimates that urbanized Southern California and the San Francisco Bay region have the potential to increase water supplies by 420,000 to 630,000 acre-feet per year simply by better managing stormwater runoff.

One Word: Graphene

Of course, when we talk about water scarcity, we refer to only freshwater, which accounts for only 2.5% of total global water.  Desalinating abundant seawater is a seemingly attractive workaround, a way to solve water scarcity without the difficult task of changing water use habits.  Unfortunately, desalination, for now, is expensive and energy-intensive.  The most common form of desalination, reverse osmosis, forces seawater through a polymer membrane.  The membrane allows water molecules to pass, but blocks salt molecules.

Graphene, an allotrope (i.e., a different structural form) of carbon, which shows promise in battery technology, quantum computing, health monitoring, and solar cells, could reduce the cost and energy associated with desalinating water.  The gaps in polymer membranes are determined by the physical and chemical properties of the polymer used.  Gaps in graphene must be punched, so they can be sized to reduce the amount of pressure needed to pass water through but still prevent salt from passing through.  Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are both working on overcoming the engineering problems associated with graphene membranes.  Commercial viability may still be several years away, but graphene may make desalination accessible enough to meet the world’s needs for clean water.

 

From Commonplace Materials, Shigeru Ban Creates Uncommon Shelters

— September 8, 2014

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s first museum in the United States opened last month in Aspen, Colorado.  An internationally renowned architect and the recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Prize, which is often referred to as architecture’s Nobel Prize, Ban is distinguished from his peers by his commitment to humanitarian work and sustainability.

Since 1994, Ban and a team of volunteers have responded to a number of disasters worldwide with innovative architectural solutions.  They constructed relief housing in response to the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Ban uses inexpensive, often recycled materials to construct innovative shelters in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.  These structures dispel preconceived notions of the aesthetics of disaster relief shelters with their simple, clean designs.

In Onagawa, Japan, Ban converted old shipping containers into housing for people who lost their homes in the 2011 disaster.  The earthquake and flooding left little flat land, which Ban addressed by stacking the shipping containers to make three level multi-family units.   One of Ban’s earliest projects was in response to the 1994 civil war in Rwanda that left millions homeless.  Ban worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to develop refugee shelters, using low-cost paper tubes as an alternative to wood in an area that had suffered rapid deforestation.

Minimalism in a Time of Excess

What makes Ban’s work particularly interesting from an energy standpoint is his dedication to using locally and sustainably sourced materials.  The new Aspen Art Museum is constructed from materials ranging from paper tubes to beer crates, and all the wood involved in the project was sustainably sourced.  Fellow architects have called Ban a “socially responsible” or “socially conscious” architect who prizes sustainability above all.  But despite Ban’s focus on reusing materials and minimizing waste, he rejects labels such as green and eco-friendly.

Although Ban is the best-known philanthropic architect, lesser-known builders and organizations are working in a similar capacity, creating a small but growing movement.  For example, the U.K. charity Architecture Sans Frontières, emulating the model pioneered by Doctors without Borders, is spreading sustainable architecture and responsibly built environments to marginalized or impoverished communities around the world.  In the United States, the organization Make it Right, created after Hurricane Katrina, enlists architects who donate their time to create cradle to cradle homes that produce more energy than they consume.  Natural disasters, political turmoil, and war will continue to displace people from their homes, and the innovative architectural designs by Ban and others can help keep them from crowded and unsanitary refugee camps.

 

Utility Customers Respond to Variable Pricing

— September 7, 2014

On July 23, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) customers earned more than $2.5 million by reducing their electricity usage during peak summer heat hours.  Over 640,000 residences voluntarily participated – nearly an 80% participation rate among those who were notified – amounting to an average bill credit of $6.80, enough to buy an ice cream cone while turning down the air conditioning a few degrees.

BGE is the first utility in the country to put all of its customers with smart meters on a default Peak Time Rebate program.

It works like this: BGE customers with a smart meter can participate in the BGE Smart Energy Rewards program by voluntarily reducing their electricity usage to earn a bill credit of $1.25/kWh saved from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on designated energy savings days.  Eligible customers will be notified, usually the evening before, by an automated phone call, e-mail, or text message.  BGE anticipates that there will be 5 to 10 energy savings days in a summer season.

Smarter Grids, Smarter Customers

BGE has had a traditional direct load control (DLC) residential DR program for many years, and it has been successful within its own parameters.  However, the company has been installing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), as covered in Navigant Research’s Smart Meters report, over the last few years, and with that network comes new capabilities (and regulatory requirements to meet cost-benefit thresholds).  AMI provides the utility and potentially customers with near-real-time interval meter data, so the utility can send time-based price signals and get almost immediate feedback on customer performance.  Couple these abilities with new end-user device and thermostat technologies that enable fast response and remote control by the customer, and you have more customer-centric, flexible demand response (DR) programs than were possible before; this can increase customer penetration rates dramatically.

Right on Time

Other innovative companies are trying different variations of programs and pricing offerings.  The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is looking to become the first utility to have a default time-of-use (TOU) rate after running a successful pilot that showed that customers preferred TOU structures to their standard flat rate.  The guiding principles of Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) for DR include voluntary participation for customers and no DLC by the utility, relying completely on customer empowerment.  OG&E believes that pairing dynamic pricing with technological devices will achieve these goals.  The province of Ontario, Canada has instituted default TOU pricing for customers with smart meters since 2005, the only area in North America to do so.  A traditional DLC program already existed in the province, and now the plan is to combine the control ability of the DLC with TOU pricing to help customers respond to price variations.  Massachusetts is set to become the first U.S. state to mandate default critical peak pricing (CPP) based on a recent order by the Department of Public Utilities.

All of these developments and other innovative programs are covered in Navigant Research’s new report, Residential Demand Response.  The report discusses industry trends around the world and provides 10-year forecasts of sites, capacity, and revenue, including breakouts between DLC and dynamic pricing.  Over time, all these different pilot projects will blossom into full-blown programs and expand into other jurisdictions, creating a truly responsive demand side of the energy equation.

 

NRG Goes All In on Distributed Generation

— September 6, 2014

One of the largest independent power producer (IPPs) in the United States, NRG, provides power for the wholesale power markets with more than 50 GW of conventional installed capacity.  More recently, under outspoken CEO David Crane, the company has made a name for itself in renewables, with approximately 2.5 GW of solar PV, concentrated solar thermal, and wind capacity.  NRG also made headlines recently with a reshuffling of its business units: NRG Business (focused on conventional wholesale energy including nuclear, coal, and gas power plants), NRG Renew (focused on large-scale renewables), and NRG Home (focused on distributed generation [DG] and energy services for residential customers).

The company has relied on both organic growth as well as a series of acquisitions to fuel its DG offerings, including Dominion Resources and solar PV provider Rooftop Diagnostics, which expands the company’s customer base – particularly in the Northeast – and its expertise in residential systems.  These acquisitions underscore the growing opportunity presented by DG – systems that provide power onsite or at the distribution level of the grid.

Power in the Wild

What’s more surprising is NRG’s acquisition of Goal Zero, a privately held manufacturer of portable chargers and solar PV consumer products. Based in Utah, Goal Zero supplies unique niches of outdoor/off-grid enthusiasts that need power in the remote, challenging regions in which they travel.  The company effectively markets itself like Red Bull, touting the X-Games: “Zero Apathy, Zero Regrets, and Zero Boundaries is our mission. Goal Zero is our name.”  The company’s numerous ambassadors keep it real by leading expeditions to Kyrgyzstan or photographing surfers in Iceland.  They power their laptops with batteries recharged by the Goal Zero portable charger (the Sherpa Power Pack), and they blog at night with light from the Goal Zero solar lantern.  The portable chargers can be charged via car adapters, a wall outlet, or solar panels provided by Goal Zero.

The company’s products are sold through retail partners such as REI, Cabela’s, other sporting goods stores around the country, and online.  And by all measures, to use the vernacular, they appear to be crushing it. With 100 employees, the company ranked #9 on Inc.’s 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in 2013, with 3-year sales growth of 16,981%.

This is a big move for NRG and takes DG to a whole new level.  The appeal to NRG goes beyond the extreme adventure lifestyle to cell phone charging stations (think airports, stadiums, convention centers, malls, etc.) and potentially to off-grid living in the developing world.  I profiled Goal Zero in my Solar Photovoltaic Consumer Products report, along with Oregon’s Grape Solar, which sells similar products.  There I observed that large corporations have been circling the waters to get into the portable power/off-grid lighting niche through acquisition, but I was mostly thinking Panasonic, Schneider, and other consumer electronics companies – not the third-largest U.S. energy IPP.  NRG just went super DG, and we can expect many more to follow suit.

 

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